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WILLIAM CONGREVE descended from a family in Staffordshire, of so great antiquity that it claims a place among the few that extend their line beyond the Norman Conquest;
and was the son of William Congreve, second son of Richard Congreve, of Congreve and Stratton. He visited, once at least, the residence of his ancestors; and, I believe, more places than one are still shewn, in groves and gardens, where he is related to have written his “old Bachelor."
Neither the time nor place of his birth is certainly known; if the inscription upon his monument be true, he was born in 1672. For the place, it was said by himself, that he owed his nativity to England, and by every body else, that he was born in Ireland. Southern mentioned him, with sharp censure, as a man that meanly disowned his native country. The biographers assign his nativity to Bardsa, near Leeds, in Yorkshire, from the account given by himself, as they suppose, to Jacob.
To doubt whether a man of eminence has told the truth about his own birth, is, in
deficient in candour; yet, nobody can live long without knowing that falsehoods of convenience or vanity, falsehoods from which no evil immediately visible ensues, except the general degradation of human testimony, are very lightly uttered; and, once uttered, are sullenly supported. Boileau, who desired to be thought a rigorous and steady moralist, having told a petty lie to Lewis the Fourteenth, continued it afterwards by false dates; thinking himself obliged in honour, says his admirer, to maintain what, when he said it, was so well received.
Wherever Congreve was born, he was educated first at Kilkenny, and afterwards at Dublin, his father having some military employment that stationed him in Ireland; but, after having passed through the usual preparatory studies, as may be reasonably supposed, with great celerity and success, hís father thought it proper to assign him a profession by which
something might be gotten; and, about the time of the Revolution, sent him, at the age of sixteen, to study law in the Middle Temple, where he lived for several years, but with very little attention to statutes or reports.
His disposition to become an author appeared very early, as he very early felt that force of imagination, and possessed that copiousness of sentiment, by which intellectual pleasure can be given. His first performance was a novel, called “Incognita, or Love and Duty reconciled:” it is praised by the biographers, who quote some part of the preface, that is, indeed, for such a time of life, uncommonly judicious. I would rather praise it than read it.
His first dramatic labour was “The Old Bachelor;" of which he says, in his defence against Collier, “that comedy was written, as several know, some years before it was acted. When I wrote it, I had little thoughts of the stage; but did it to amuse myself in a slow recovery from a fit of sickness. Afterwards, through my indiscretion, it was seen, and, in some little time more, it was acted; and I, through the remainder of my indiscretion, suffered myself to be drawn into the prosecution of a difficult and thankless study, and to be involved in a perpetual war with knaves and fools."
There seems to be a strange affectation in authors of appearing to have done every thing by chance. “The Old Bachelor” was written for amusement in the languor of convalescence. Yet it is apparently composed with great elaborateness of dialogue, and incessant ambition of wit. The age of the writer considered, it is, indeed, a very wonderful performance; for, whenever written, it was acted (1693) when he was not more than twenty-one years old; and was then récommended by Mr. Dryden, Mr. Southern, and Mr. Mainwaring. Dryden said, that he never had seen such a first play; but they found it deficient in some things requisite to the success of its exhibition, and, by their greater experience, fitted it for the stage. Southern used to relate of one comedy, probably of this, that, when Congreve read it to the players, he pronounced it so wretchedly, that they had almost rejected it; but they were afterwards so well persuaded of its excellence, that, for half a year before it was acted, the
allowed its Author the privilege of the house.
Few plays have ever been so beneficial to the writer; for it procured him the patronage of Halifax, who immediately made him one of the commissioners for licensing coaches, and soon after gave him a place in the Pipe-office, and another in the Customs of six hundred pounds a year. Congreve's conversation must surely have been at least equally pleasing with his writings:
Such a comedy, written at such an age, requires some consideration. As the lighter species of dramatic poetry professes the imitation of common life, of real manners, and daily incidents, it apparently pre-supposes a familiar knowledge of many characters, and exact observation of the passing world; the difficulty therefore is, to conceive how this knowledge can be obtained by a boy.
But if “The Old Bachelor” be more nearly examined, it will be found to be one of those comedies which may be made by a mind vigorous and acute, and furnished with comic characters by the perusal of other poets, without much actual commerce with mankind. The dialogue is one constant reciprocation of conceits, or clash of wit, in which nothing flows necessarily from the occasion, or is dictated by nature. The characters, both of men and women, are either fictitious and artificial, as those of Heartwell and the ladies; or easy and common, as Wittol, a tame idiot, Bluff, a swaggering coward, and Fondlewife, a jealous puritan; and the catastrophe arises from a mistake not very probably produced, by marrying a woman in a mask.
Yet this gay comedy, when all these deductions are made, will still remain the work of very powerful and fertile faculties; the dialogue is quick and sparkling, the incidents such as seize the attention, and the wit so exuberant, that it “o'er-informs its tenement."
Next year he gave another specimen of his abilities in “The Double Dealer,” which was not received with equal kindness. He writes to his patron, the Lord Halifax, a dedication, in which he endeavours to reconcile the reader to that which found few friends among the audience. These apologies are always useless: “de gustibus non est disputandum;' men may be convinced, but they cannot be pleased against their will. But, though taste is obstinate, it is variable; and time often prevails when arguments have failed.
Queen Mary conferred upon both those plays the honour of her presence; and when she died, soon after, Congreve testified his gratitude by a despicable effusion of elegiac pastoral; a composition in which all is unnatural, and yet nothing is new.
In another year (1695) his prolific pen produced "Love for Love;" a comedy of nearer alliance to life, and exhibiting more real manners than either of the former. The character of Foresight was then common. Dryden calculated nativities; both Cromwell and King William had their lucky days; and Shaftesbury himself, though he had no religion, was said to regard
predictions. The Sailor is not accounted very natural, but he is very pleasant.
With this play was opened the New Theatre, under the direction of Betterton, the tragedian; where he exhibited, two years afterwards, (1687)“The Mourning Bride," a tragedy, so written as to shew him sufficiently qualified for either kind of dramatic poetry.
In this play, of which, when he afterwards revised it, he reduced the versification to greater regularity, there is more bustle than sentiment, the plot is busy and intricate, and the events take hold on the attention; but, except a very few passages, we are rather amused with noise, and perplexed with stratagem, than entertained with any true delineation of natural characters. This, however, was received with more benevolence than any other of his works, and still continues to be acted and applauded.
But whatever objections may be made either to his comic or tragic excellence, they are lost at once in the blaze of admiration, when it is remembered that he had produced these four plays before he had passed his twenty-fifth year;
before other men, even such as are some time to shine in eminence, have passed their probation of literature, or presume to hope for any other notice than such as is bestowed on diligence and inquiry. Among all the efforts of early genius, which literary history records, I doubt whether any one can be produced that more surpasses the common limits of nature than the plays of Congreve.
About this time began the long-continued controversy between Collier and the poets. In the reign of Charles the First, the puritans had raised a violent clamour against the drama, which they considered as an entertainment not lawful to Christians, an opinion held by them in common with the church of Rome; and Prynne published “Histrio-Mastix,' a huge volume, 'in which stage-plays were censured. The
outrages and crimes of the puritans brought afterwards their whole
system of doctrine into disrepute, and from the Restoration the poets and players were left at quiet; for to have molested them would have had the appearance of tendency to puritanical malignity.
This danger, however, was worn away by time; and Collier, a fierce and implacable nonjuror, knew that an attack upon the theatre would never make him suspected for a puritan; he therefore (1698) published “A short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage," I believe with no other motive than religious zeal and honest indignation. He was formed for a controvertist; with sufficient learning; with diction vehement and pointed, though often vulgar and incorrect; with unconquerable pertinacity; with wit in the highest degree keen and sarcastic; and with all those powers exalted and invigorated by just confidence in his
Thus qualified, and thus incited, he walked out to battle, and assailed at once most of the living writers, from Dryden to D'Urfey. His onset was violent; those passages, which, while they stood single had passed with little notice, when they were accumulated and exposed together, excited horror; the wise and the pious caught the alarm; and the nation wondered why it had so long suffered irreligion and licentiousness to be openly taught at the public charge.
Nothing now remained for the poets but to resist or fly. Dryden's conscience, or his prudence, angry as he was,
withheld him from the conflict: Congreve and Vanbrugh attempted answers. Congreve, a very young man, elated with success, and impatient of censure, assumed an air of confidence and security. His chief artifice of controversy is to retort upon his adversary his own words; he is very angry, and, hoping to conquer Collier with his own weapons, allows himself in the use of every term of contumely and contempt; but he has the sword without the arm of Scanderbeg; he has his antagonist's coarseness, but not his strength. Collier replied; for contest was his delight; he was not to be frighted from his purpose or
The cause of Congreve was not tenable; whatever glosses he might use for the defence or palliation of single passages, the general tenor and tendency of his plays must always be condemned. It is acknowledged, with universal conviction,